After emerging to 11-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room was not joyous. No signs of celebration showed following a 19-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, effectively putting Baltimore out of contention to win the AFC North for a third consecutive time.
Perhaps that was due to a sloppy game where the Steelers (again) narrowly escaped the jaws of defeat. Or, perhaps the Steelers knew they lost a key piece to their defensive puzzle.
After losing starters Zach Banner and Devin Bush to torn ACL's, Bud Dupree now becomes the third member of the Steelers to suffer a season-ending injury in that fashion. Dupree, second on the team with eight sacks and another eleven tackles for loss, now leaves a considerably sized hole opposite T.J. Watt.
Enter: Alex Highsmith. Highsmith, Pittsburgh's third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, wasn't expected to handle starting duties until a potential Dupree exit following the 2020 season.
Now, Highsmith will be called upon as a starting outside linebacker in a complex 3-4 defense until Pittsburgh's season draws to a close. With only five games left in the regular season, Highsmith has just over a quarter of a season to get properly acclimated until the postseason.
The good news? Highsmith has played in roughly 20% of defensive plays this season (snaps against the Ravens have yet to be officially counted), far out-snapping any player on the active roster without a starting role on either side of the ball, while also playing the most special teams snaps (71%). Prior to week twelve, Highsmith played over 24% of snaps in four consecutive games. While Highsmith remains a rookie with a large learning curve ahead of him, he also has some valuable experience prior to seeing his name called to the first team.
Following his arrival in Pittsburgh, I wrote an article detailing Highsmith's profile and how he fits within the Steelers defense:
"Highsmith's initial skill-set as a pass-rusher includes great initial explosiveness, and a variety of power/finesse moves to get to the ball-carrier. Highsmith currently sits as a project for Pittsburgh, but think of him as a project made by a parent rather than a child. It's fairly polished and very likely to grade well.
There's a lot to like about Highsmith in black and gold. If Highsmith is able to maintain his prowess and urgency in getting to the quarterback while also proving capable of dropping into pass-coverage on a consistent basis, he very well projects to be a starting outside linebacker in the NFL. While this season may be limited, you don't draft a player on day two of the NFL Draft simply to play special teams and become a rotational player."
Awesome, that was seven months ago. How has Highsmith fared in actual games?
With only 15 plays where Highsmith was involved in the play on the defensive side of the ball, film was limited on the Charlotte product. However, I did find a few takeaways:
Most of Highsmith's snaps came at right outside linebacker, where T.J. Watt typically lines up. I am intrigued on how Highsmith can make similar plays on the opposite line of scrimmage, yet his frontside run support gives great hope.
Highsmith didn't drop into pass coverage frequently in college, and the same could be said for his start in the NFL. I only found a handful of plays where Highsmith dropped into coverage (most were zone with him breaking to the ball for a tackle) as opposed to getting targeted in coverage. As you can see in the video above, he's shown he's capable of making plays with the ball in the air.
Rushing the Passer
Let's be real: The Steelers drafted Highsmith to get after the quarterback. He was pretty solid in that regard at a collegiate level, and his rookie year has shown quite the potential.
There's no denying the team will miss Bud Dupree. What Dupree brought in both run and pass support will be hard to replicate. However, the Steelers drafted Highsmith in the third-round for a reason: to contribute. He'll get his chance a bit earlier than anticipated.
It's not fair to either place high expectations on Highsmith or expect him to mirror Dupree's efforts, especially for his first two starts.
However, I believe Highsmith to be ready to tackle the challenge of starting opposite of T.J. Watt. Watt's presence will see Highsmith encounter quite a few one-on-one matchups, and should Highsmith display anything we've come to see already, success will be found for the rookie pass rusher. I'm also intrigued to see Highsmith develop his skill set exclusively at left outside linebacker, especially with assisting in helping limit ball-carriers.
What do the Steelers have in Alex Highsmith? An inexperienced rookie with quite the toolbox of abilities to get after the quarterback. Although time will tell if Highsmith will become a steal of the draft at pick 102, Pittsburgh seeks to unveil an early return on Highsmith.
Should a small sample size serve correctly, Highsmith can reward them earlier than expected.